Sustainable Business -- A Vision Statement

Sustainable Business -- A Vision Statement

The sustainable business phenomenon is taking deeper root. Just look at the business response to global warming presented in Business Week's recent cover story, for example.

But many of us who've been laboring in the vineyards for the past few decades have been wondering whether there's a fundamental problem remaining: all too much of the effort from business, government and NGOs has focused on mitigating the problem, making things less bad, slowing the rate of decline of the regenerative capacity of the living systems that sustain human culture and economy.

Bill McDonough offers the simple and compelling metaphor of slowing down a car that's going in the wrong direction, instead of turning it around. Frank Dixon of Innovest Strategic Value Advisors has been calling for raising the bar from "corporate social responsibility" to "total corporate responsibility -- focused on promoting system changes that hold firms fully responsible." John Ehrenfeld, MIT professor and industrial ecology leader, questions the conventional approach to sustainable development: "Creating true sustainability," he argues in a recent Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) journal article, "requires radical solutions, not quick fixes, [beginning] by examining our own behaviors and assumptions regarding consumption, personal satisfaction, and technology."

This draft "sustainable business vision statement" is my current contribution to that discussion. Commissioned by the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA), and guided by the new California Sustainable Business Council, it's intentionally both spare and provocative. Every phrase in it could be further explained, justified, specified, documented and exampled -- and soon will be, on an interactive web page. But then it wouldn't be a vision statement. (Also in process with ACWMA support, a robust "sustainable business rating system" -- but more on that another time.)

The purpose of this vision statement: to challenge already good companies, developers, designers and public authorities to an even higher level of thinking, aspiration and performance. (See also: "How High the Moon: The challenge of 'sufficient' goals," at http://www.NatLogic.com/resources/nbl/v13/n03.html.)

Please send me your comments and suggestions, at 'vision at natlogic dot com' -- and invite me to join your organization in a dialog about aspiration, possibility and profitable implementation.


Sustainable Business -- A Vision Statement

Because:
  • the well being of our economy fundamentally depends on the services from nature that support it,
  • business activity has a profound impact on the ability of nature to sustainably provide those services,
  • we are committed, as business and community leaders, to the well being of both economic and ecological systems, of both humans and other living things,
  • we believe that these goals are compatible (and where they seem to be incompatible, we are committed to finding better ways to do business that make them compatible).
We envision our company, suppliers and customers, and our community doing business in ways that:
  • preserve, protect and ultimately enhance the living systems -- of this region, and the planet -- that sustain our business and the larger human economy
  • provide ever greater value in meeting the real needs of our customers, suppliers and communities
  • meet human needs in the most efficient and economical means possible, in order to include the greatest percentage of humanity.
To do this we will:
  • consider the requirements of the earth's living systems in all design and operating decisions
  • not take more from the earth that it can sustainably provide
  • not provide to the earth more than it can sustainably absorb
  • analyze the life cycle operating costs and impacts of our facilities, operations and products/services, as well as their initial costs
  • work to eliminate "waste" of all kinds from our operations, and to find safe, productive uses for any "non-product" that we are not yet able to eliminate
  • treat employees, customers, suppliers and stakeholders fairly, honestly and respectfully
  • take responsibility for the safety of our products/services in their intended use
  • take responsibility for the safety of our activities for employees and communities
  • take responsibility for the safe "end of life" recovery and reuse or recycling or our products
  • design our facilities, operations and products/services to be ever more efficient, ever less dependent on materials and activities that poison, degrade or encroach on living systems, and ever more supportive of these approaches
  • do all these in a way that supports our economic well-being, and the economic well-being of those who depend on us
We will measure our progress by the trends of our
  • resource productivity [unit of benefit provided per unit of resource used]
  • "non-product" output [amounts & toxicity of "unsaleable" materials and chemicals]
  • net carbon emissions [production of climate changing greenhouse gasses]
  • ecological footprint [demand on earth's regenerative capacity]
  • profit, both near and long term
We will pursue these steps with a commitment to
  • future generations
  • continuous improvement
  • open dialogue with our customers, stockholders, suppliers, and communities
That's our stake in the ground. I'd be interested to know how this compares with your organization's vision -- and its reality -- in these two key dimensions of business and sustainability: Are you just putting a band-aid on environmental and social problems, or are you making a substantive contribution to solving them? Are you leaving money on the table, or are you systematically building value for your company and its stakeholders?

Feel free to forward this to your colleagues. And use it to fuel fruitful discussions about whether your company is taking the challenge and the opportunity seriously -- and creatively -- enough.

Please let me know what comes of those discussions; we'll update this vision statement, taking your feedback into account.

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Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc. -- offering advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise. Sign up online to receive his monthly column via email.

Copyright 2004, Gil Friend. All rights reserved.